Richardson: Wait a year on lobbying reform

By Barry Massey

SANTA FE — New Mexico’s laws regulating lobbying of legislators and state officials need tightening, Gov. Bill Richardson said Wednesday.

However, Richardson doesn’t want the issue considered during the current 30-day session of the Legislature.

The governor, in comments at a legislative breakfast reception sponsored by the New Mexico Press Association, said lobbying law changes should be handled in the 2007 legislative session.

Richardson said a focus of this session should be anti-corruption proposals that were developed in the wake of a kickback scandal in the state’s treasurer’s office. One proposal endorsed by the governor would prohibit campaign contributions, gifts or anything of value to the treasurer or his staff from a current or prospective contractor with the treasurer’s office.

Congress is considering changes in lobbying rules because of an influence peddling scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The governor, in response to a question, said New Mexico’s lobbying laws need improvement. However, he didn’t endorse or oppose any specific proposals.

Currently, there is no law in New Mexico that bans or restricts the giving of gifts to legislators or members of the executive branch such as the governor. Legislators are not paid a salary. They receive a daily expense reimbursement when the Legislature meets.

“Given the fact that the Congress has made this such a priority and given the fact that I do believe our laws need to be tightened, I want to work with the Legislature in the next session to see if we can have … comprehensive reforms that deal with a number of these issues,” Richardson said.
In Congress, there are proposals to ban gifts and prohibit lobbyists from arranging or funding trips.

However, Richardson defended so-called fact-finding trips, such as those for members of his staff and legislators to the Netherlands to tour a uranium enrichment plant.

Louisiana Energy Services, which proposes to build a similar enrichment facility in New Mexico, has spent almost $40,000 since late 2003 for government officials to travel to the Netherlands to inspect an enrichment plant operated by Urenco, a European company.

Several Richardson aides and legislators went on the trips organized by LES.

“I felt this trip is legitimate,” said Richardson.

In 2004, he said, the chairwoman of the state Environmental Improvement Board, Gay Dillingham, toured the plant in the Netherlands and “she came back even more negatively disposed toward LES.”

The governor said he had no objection to a fact-finding trip such as those done by LES “as long as it’s disclosed, it’s promptly divulged.”

Under state law, lobbyists or their employers must file reports periodically that disclose their political contributions or expenditures to influence a governmental action.

Lobbyists spent at least $580,000 for meals, drinks, gifts, entertainment and special events for legislators, the governor, state agency officials and staff during 2005, according to a computer-assisted analysis of lobbyist spending reports by The Associated Press.

In addition, lobbyists and their employers made nearly $750,000 in campaign contributions to the governor, legislators and other elected state officials from late April through December.

Lobbyists and their employers are prohibited from making political contributions to legislators and statewide elected officials at certain times, such as when the Legislature is in session.

Also Wednesday, Richardson said he’s willing to support efforts to make the Legislature more open to the public through the Internet. Last year, he vetoed $50,000 for buying and installing equipment for a Webcast of the Legislature. Richardson said there wasn’t adequate planning for that initiative last year.

A Webcast would allow New Mexicans to use their computers to hear or watch live proceedings of the House and Senate.

The governor’s state of the state speech to the Legislature last week was shown live over the Internet and Richardson said it drew considerable interest from the public.